Philly firefighters remember Gulf Oil Refinery blaze 40 years later

Lois Campana remembers the last time she saw her husband.

It was 40 years ago Monday,and she had just gotten home from a shift as a nurse. Her husband, Ralph, had pulled away in his car to get to his job as a firefighter. Suddenly, the car reversed. She was still standing on the porch.

“I said ‘Did you forget something’ and he said ‘No, I just wanted to get one more look,'” Lois Campana told a crowd gathered at Fireman’s Hall Museum.

Firefighters, their families and political dignitaries gathered Monday to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Gulf Oil Refinery fire in 1975, a blaze that burned for six days, killing eight and injuring 14.

“I ran in, I saw guys that were burning. I couldn’t get to them and it bothered me,” said David Schoolfield, a retired firefighter. “Everyone was screaming for me to get out. And when I went to turn, that’s when I went up in the flame.”

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The events leading to the fire began with a ship that hadoverfilled a tank at the refinery. Fumes from the tank accumulated in a boiler house that ignited from an unknown source. Firefighters fought the blaze for most of the morning, and believed it was under control. But they remained on scene, pouring water on tanks to keep them cool and prevent them from igniting.

Along the way, crewsbecame concerned that overhead wires would overheat and fall into puddles of crude oil that had begun accumulating. Theyturned them off, which shutoff pumps that served the refinery’s underground sewer system. The oil flooded worse, to the point where surrounded a fire truck.

Nobody is quite sure how the oil ignited, but some believe that the fire truck surrounded by oil had overheated. When the oil ignited, it trappedthree firefighters. Other firefighters — many of whom had removed protective gear because they believed the blaze was under control and because theywere taking breaks, rushed to help.

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FirefigherRay Rajchel waded through what he said was two feet of oil after being relived. He slipped on a submerged firehose and was forced to walk to a truck to get cleaned off. On his way back to his company,he heard screaming.

“Sometimes it pays to be clumsy,” Rajchel said.

Six firefighters died on the scene, and two died later from injuries they suffered. Fourteen others were injured.

“I remember my father going to work and fighting this fire,” said Andy Thomas, president of the firefighters union in Philadelphia. “I remember playing in the park at2nd and Jackson and seeing the smoke envelope the neighborhood. It was terrifying not knowing where my father was and whether he was one of the victims.”

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